Drunk Drivers Demand Fines Back

CLEVELAND (AP) - Drunken driving defendants who appeared in three suburban municipal courts say they've paid too high a price for justice, and now they're suing to be repaid court costs they claim they were overcharged.

They're suing the state, claiming they were illegally charged the costs for traffic citations in the Berea, Rocky River, and Parma municipal courts.

If they're successful, their case could force many cities to re-think how they determine court fees and refund thousands of dollars to Ohioans.

In 2005, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, William Glick, reached a plea deal on a traffic violation and was convicted of reckless operation. A separate charge involving weaving was dropped. After paying a $450 fine, Glick was surprised to get another $510 bill, this time for court costs.

When he questioned why the court fees bill was so high, he discovered that the Berea Municipal Court charges defendants for each citation, not just once per incident. The multiple initial charges increased his bill. By comparison, a similar matter settled in Elyria would only have been billed one $110 fee.

The lawsuit, which involves misdemeanors, claims the practice of billing for each violation is illegal. If successful, it could force local governments to repay thousands of people that were billed court costs for multiple offenses in a single case. Lawyers are asking for refunds for defendants who may have been overcharged since 1995.

"That would be devastating," Berea Mayor Joseph Biddlecombe said. "We would have to borrow some of that money to pay it back, and that's not fair to the taxpayers."

Officials in Parma are scratching their heads over their inclusion in the suit because Parma doesn't bill more for multiple charges.

A hearing in the lawsuit is scheduled for a pretrial hearing on Wednesday, and trial is tentatively set for Sept. 13.

Lawyers for Glick and the other defendants cite an opinion written in 1991 by then-Attorney General Lee Fisher. The opinion reads that "court costs ... are to be charged per case and not per offense."

The state contends that it assesses a $24 state fee once per case, does not directly run municipal courts and would have no way to repay fees the courts assess. Municipal court officials say judges have the power to set fees in their courts.

The lawsuit is more about lawyers seeking a big payday than righting a wrong, Rocky River Municipal Court Clerk William Garreau.

In Berea, losing the lawsuit would eliminate money the city planned to use for a new justice center, Biddlecombe said.

A verdict against the state and the cities would "pretty much eliminate this whole deal here," Biddlecombe said.

Glick argues that's not his concern.

"They got me good," he said. "I want my money back."